A Guest of Honor

Scott Joplin receives a celebratory homecoming with Opera Theatre of St. Louis' revival of Treemonisha

The plot is not exactly sophisticated, which is true of many operas. Ned and Monisha discover an infant girl under a tree and name her Treemonisha. A white woman living nearby teaches her to read, and at the age of 18 Treemonisha takes on the role of leading her community out of ignorance and toward education. This means conflict with Zodzetrick and the conjurers, who provide "goofer dust" to ward off evil like a drug. In director Levine's interpretation, Treemonisha's theme "addresses the issues that superstition -- these roads to escape who you are, goofer dust -- leads you away from who you are."

An African-American composer with aspirations toward high art did not have such sympathetic dramaturgy in America in the second decade of the 20th century. A choral presentation of the opera in Harlem in 1915 did not appropriately impress the right people. By this stage in his life, Joplin's health was rapidly declining. The late jazz pianist Eubie Blake was a young man hanging out in clubs at the time, and he remembered seeing Joplin being taunted by musicians to play: "So pitiful. He was so far gone with the dog (syphilis) and he sounded like a little child tryin' to pick out a tune."

Having spent all of his resources and his energy on getting Treemonisha produced, Joplin died in the mental ward of Manhattan State Hospital in 1917. He was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.

True to his prediction, Joplin did not begin to be recognized as a pre-eminent American composer until a generation after his death. The 1940s swing craze led to an exploration of earlier jazz styles, ragtime among them. The first critical re-evaluation, "Scott Joplin: Overlooked Genius," appeared in a record magazine in 1944.

Not until the 1970s did the ragtime craze, and an appreciation of Joplin, reach its zenith. Musicologist Jeremy Rifkin recorded Piano Rags by Scott Joplin with Nonesuch Records, and it became a surprise hit (significantly, given Joplin's aspirations, it was placed in the "classical" category). A few years later, Gunther Schuller recorded a number of Joplin's ragtime orchestrations; Joplin again made the Top 40 lists, and the album won a Grammy for best chamber recording. It was this recording that film director George Roy Hill heard, inspiring the soundtrack to The Sting. In the summer of '74, Joplin's "The Entertainer" began ascending the charts with a bullet.

Treemonisha's premiere performance came in Atlanta in 1972, with stage direction and choreography by Katherine Dunham. In 1975, the Houston Grand Opera presented Treemonisha, with orchestral arrangements by Schuller (which Huard is using for the OTSL production). The Houston production went on to Broadway, but since that time no professional company has revived the opera.

Levine's complaints about the opera world's record on ethnic diversity notwithstanding, Treemonisha presents artistic problems as well. Although Joplin deserves accolades as a top-rank composer, he was a poor librettist, as even his strongest advocates admit. Yet there are those who are critical of the score as well, finding Joplin imitative of a tradition he had not had the opportunity to fully absorb, explore and make his own.

So when MacKay proposed to his colleagues that Treemonisha be made the centerpiece of OTSL's 25th-anniversary season, it was not an easy sell. Says Colin Graham, "There were general misgivings. First of all, it hadn't been done since Houston, and we didn't really like the Houston approach to it -- at least I didn't. It was cartoonish and overcolorful. But I think when we got to know the piece better, we learned the values of it. Once you get past the apparent naïveté of it, you're going to see the reasons for doing it. That, combined with our commitment to the young artists in the AIT program -- it just seemed a wonderful consummation of that."

Once Levine had been selected as director, her enthusiasm for the piece further assuaged those early misgivings. "It is an incredibly important piece," she affirms, "that has resonance to this day." The principal conflict is between those who emphasize education and those who would mire the community in superstitious beliefs. The heroine of the opera is an 18-year-old woman, and the place of women in community is another modern theme Levine finds in Joplin's work. "The leader is Treemonisha, who lets us know that our hope is education," says Levine. "There is no opera like that."

Costumer Paul Taswell has worked with period photographs of African-Americans in the rural South and has sought in his designs to convey what he found in those photographs: "an amazing dignity, innocence and sophistication and nobility in the people." When the cast of OTSL's Treemonisha takes the stage at the Loretto-Hilton Center, they will enter a sepia-toned world, far from cartoon. They will sit and listen to the orchestra as a projection of the composer appears behind them. "I hope it does honor to Mr. Joplin," says Levine.

Joplin dreamed of an artistic life that Jermaine Smith and Mark Kent and other people of color (though too few) are now living nearly a century later. By most accounts, Joplin was not a religious man, although the strains of gospel can be heard in Treemonisha. Smith, however, remains close to his church, singing with the congregation now that he's back home. He had not even dreamed this life he's living, yet knows he is fulfilling the dreams of others, both those close to him and those sepia-toned figures in a history still not fully known.

A deacon of Smith's church recently described to the artist his place in the world this way: "You're out there doing what we would have loved to have done and didn't get the opportunity. So we live it through you."

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